Thursday, June 18, 2009

I smiled so much, my cheeks hurt.

This past week, I went to the annual conference of my professional association, the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS). The conference was a four-day event, hosted at my alma mater, the University of Waterloo. I have to admit, I was feeling a wee bit anxious about going, not only because these sorts of events have a lot of social time, and as such tend to produce a lot of anxiety for me, but also because this was going to be the first time I came face to face with a large number of people who have been following my journey either on Facebook, on Twitter, or through my blog. I thought it was going to be a little off-putting to finally interact with a group of people who now know more about me than they ever knew before. It was also going to be odd to interact with people who know me, but who haven't seen me in over a year and who had no idea what I've been up to over the past twelve months.

The conference began on Sunday afternoon, and I was a bit lazy in my preparations. I was doing laundry late on Saturday night, didn't pack until Sunday morning, and wasn't able to make it to the gym before I left town. A bit frustrated that I hadn't been better organized, I headed off to Waterloo a few hours before the conference was to begin. I figured that once I got there, I'd be able to quickly check-in at the residence, and then get an hour of cardio in at the gym. However, once I arrived, I quickly learned that the conference's events were to start only 30 minutes after my arrival, and some time at the gym wasn't in the cards. That said, I had to quickly come to terms with the fact that I was missing a workout. Remember that I've been working out 6 days a week for the past twelve months, and missing a day is a bit of a big deal. But once I gave myself a few moments to digest the fact that missing a workout isn't the end of the world, I felt better. That said, I did some last minute primping in the mirror and headed off to the opening reception of the conference.

Walking into the room, I was instantly greeted by familiar faces, most of whom quickly embraced me and congratulated me on my accomplishments. Some people stood back in a bit of amazement given the fact that the last time they saw me, I was about 150 pounds heavier. Others gushed about how incredible my journey had been to follow and that I had motivated them to make some changes in their own lives. Some people even paused awkwardly, saying nothing about my transformation, even though the pause indicated to me that they knew something was 'different'. Perhaps they didn't really notice exactly what that was. Maybe they didn't know how to tactfully say 'holy shit you're not fat anymore'. Or maybe they just paused for dramatic effect. Who knows? Regardless, the range of reactions was not only exciting and reaffirming, but also initially unsettling and uncomfortable at the same time.

As I've discussed before, I'm needing to grow more and more comfortable with the fact that the attention I now draw as a result of my physicality is not necessarily a 'bad thing'. I realize that I present very differently in the world now, and I no longer feel like people are staring at me thinking negative things about me. In fact, my therapist recently helped me to better understand my anxiety by coming to realize the fact that most people in the world really don't even care to notice me in the first place. But the people in my life who do care, do notice, and I'm quickly getting to a place where what I think is more important than what anyone thinks. It's a tough mind-shift, but it's happening.

So, as I moved through the room with a beer in my hand, I encountered more and more people who were thrilled to see me and who shared so many wonderful thoughts and compliments. I realized then, that putting aside my anxiety and enjoying the fact that so many people, in my professional circle no less, actually gave a shit about me. I work in a very caring profession -- surrounded by people who make it their life's work to care for and support the learning and development of college and university students. So, it's only natural that we care that much about one another. And it was interesting to me that it took this moment to realize just how wonderful my colleagues are, and what a caring community I am a part of.

Over the course of the reception, and the days that followed during the conference, I spent a lot of time 'coming out' again. This time I wasn't coming out as a gay man, but instead, I was coming out as someone who was getting healthy; as someone who had aspirations to run a marathon; as someone who finally learned to love and care about himself. Telling people more and more about what my journey has been like got easier and easier with every new conversation. Disclosing to some people that I was also dealing with depression and anxiety also became less awkward. Celebrating my accomplishments with people who have been following along with each new blogpost was exhilarating. Just as I noted in my last posting, telling my story and honestly talking to people more about what I'm doing helps to heal the wounds of my past, and give me more and more strength. I draw tremendous strength from the fact that people say things like:

"I am so proud of you for what you've done." "You're the person I wanted to see most at this conference." "It makes me so happy to know that you're healthy." "WOW!" "Your story is my own reality TV show. I've never missed an episode." "You have never looked happier." "Simply, you inspire me."

And these are just some of the comments I remember.

Granted, all of the attention was a bit overwhelming, and I did have to take a few moments to be with myself to re-energize. I found those moments early in the morning at the gym on campus, finally feeling like it was a place in which I belonged. I found them as I strolled quietly through campus, remembering that my alma mater is a place where I've always felt comfortable and at home. I also found those moments in quiet conversation with my closest friends, who knew of my recent anxiety disorder diagnosis, and wanted to make sure I was doing okay. Those were all some pretty wonderful moments, that helped me to be more and more open to powerful interactions with people who honestly could do nothing less than admire what I had accomplished.

This also became clear to me on Wednesday morning, when I had the opportunity to train with Shawn McCloskey, who I knew when we were students, a former professional colleague, and the partner of Pam, one of my dear friends from university. Shawn is a trainer, and when I knew I was going to the conference in Waterloo, I knew I wanted to train with him. I contacted him a while back, sent him my workouts, and was looking forward to training with him. I was excited about this, because one of the things that I've been struggling with over the past few months, is understanding how the context of my relationships have been changing. My friendships and relationships are no longer located in the context of shared meals, and food. They are becoming increasingly located in new experiences like long walks, working out together, or simply taking the time to relax. Interacting with Shawn in this new way was going to be exciting.

We met at 6:45 on Wednesday morning, and Shawn was going to put me through a leg workout. I chose a leg workout, because it's the workout that I'm most comfortable with. I told him to try new things if he wanted, and to put me through the paces. Other friends who knew I was training with him told me to expect a rough session. But I was up for the challenge.

Shawn told me we were going to do a bit of a paradigm shift in our training. Instead of working legs with machines and weights, we were going to use my own body weight to work my favourite muscle group. We did a lot of squats, jump squats, lunges, and jump lunges (a combination known as 'the crusher'). We worked with medicine balls and kettle bells. We truly did use my body weight to work my legs and at several points in our hour together got me to the point where my quads felt like butter and I wobbled from side to side. We even did some power cleans (which he was impressed with), and on a "jerk" or "snatch" lift, I knocked myself in the face with a 105-pound barbell. No worries though, no damage. The workout was amazing. It was great to see my strength materialize in a different way. It was also pretty cool to hear Shawn react to what I was capable of doing and comment on my endurance. Hearing that from yet another person whom I respect was pretty cool.

So, my time with colleagues and back at my alma matter was a bit of a whirlwind, but very memorable at the same time. What I remember more vividly than the reactions of my those around me, is that over the course of four days, I walked 'the tallest' in my life. I embraced people (literally and figuratively) with greater sincerity and warmth than ever before. I laughed with more joy that I thought was possible. And I smiled so much that my cheeks hurt. For the first time in a long time, I didn't feel like I wanted to crawl inside of myself and hide from the attention I was getting. I was proud to be the center of attention. I loved the fact that two people introduced themselves to me, not realizing that we have in fact met several times in the past few years. It all felt good -- so very very good. To a great extent, I think it felt good because I knew the attention was coming not only from people about whom I cared, but also from those who cared about me.

And it feels tremendous to know that so many people care.

Kia kaha.
Stay strong.


  1. This is quite possibly the most inspirational post I have ever read and certainly gives me that extra motivation to get my ass in gear and see this thing through.

    Thanks for sharing!


  2. Oh, that's so great!!! What a weird feeling to have that many people staring at you. Just another thing you're able to do that I amazed at! Keep on truckin!

  3. Chris,

    This is where the magic in fitness are sharing with the world what the possibilities are for those who have doubts about fitness and exercise. You have comitted yourself to your health, and you deserve the compliments and accolades you continue to get. Rock on!


  4. Oh yeah....he's my brother. Get in line. I knew him first!
    So proud of you....again. Can't hang it on my fridge but it counts nonetheless.

    xoxoxoxoxoCiao Brother,
    Andrea xoxoxoxo

  5. Chris, how amazing to have reached this point in your journey. The life changes you are making are an inspiration, and your candour in how they are not always easy is refreshing - there is so much more to it than just losing the weight (though this is an amazing accomplishment too!). I look always look forward to you new posts.